Early Church Father and perhaps a martyr; b. Asia Minor c. 140–160; d. Lyons? c. 202. Although of crucial importance in the development of the Church's theology, Irenaeus presents problems of considerable difficulty in regard to details of his life, writings, and teaching.
Life. Irenaeus, a disciple of St. polycarp of Smyrna, migrated to Gaul, where he became a presbyter of the Church of Lyons during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. During the Montanist (see montanism) controversy he was sent as an envoy to Rome by the Church of Lyons and upon his return was chosen to succeed the martyr Pothinus as bishop. In this capacity he strenuously opposed the teachings of gnosticism and in the easter controversy advised Pope victor i to preserve peace with the churches of Asia Minor.
Christianity was most probably brought to many parts of eastern Gaul by Irenaeus. Of the last years of his life practically nothing is known and only in the late 6th century does gregory of tours (Hist. Francorum 1.27) refer to Irenaeus as a martyr.
Writings. Only two complete works of Irenaeus, originally written in Greek, are extant.
The Detection and Overthrow of the False Gnosis. In five books, usually cited as Adversus haereses, this work is preserved in a Latin translation made probably c. 200. Fragments of the original Greek are found in the writings of hippolytus of rome, eusebius of caesa rea, epiphanius, and theodoret of cyr; in catenae; and in papyri. Books 4 and 5 are also extant in an Armenian translation, and 23 fragments are found in Syriac. Book 1 deals chiefly with the detection of the false Gnosis and serves as a valuable history of Gnosticism. The next three books contain the refutation of Gnostic teachings with arguments drawn from reason (book 2), from the teaching and tradition of the Apostles (book 3), and from the sayings of the Lord (book 4). Book 5 treats of the "last things," especially the resurrection of the body, and concludes with some remarks on millenarianism.
Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching. Until 1904, when a complete Armenian translation of the Demonstration ('Επίδειξις) was discovered, it was known only through a reference in Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 5.26). The treatise is an apologetic work dealing with fundamental Christian teachings and presents the prophecies of the Old Testament as proofs for the truth of Christian revelation.
Other Writings. Excerpts from the letter to Victor I relative to the Easter controversy are quoted by Eusebius (ibid., 5.23.3; 5.24.11–17). There is also a Syriac fragment of another letter to the same pope. The four fragments of letters published by C. M. Pfaff have been shown to be forgeries.
Known only through notices in Eusebius are: (1) a letter to Irenaeus's friend Florinus, On the Sole Sovereignty, or That God Is Not the Author of Evil, and a treatise written for the same friend, On the Ogdoad (Eusebius, 5.20.1); (2) a letter to Blastus, On Schism (Eusebius, ibid. ); (3) a work titled Concerning Knowledge (Eusebius, 5.26). Without giving a specific title, Eusebius also mentions a small book of various discourses.
Teaching. In opposition to Gnostic dualism Irenaeus teaches that there is but one God, who is the creator of the world and the father of Jesus Christ; one divine economy of salvation; and one revelation. He develops the Pauline doctrine of the ἀνακεφαλαίωσις, or recapitulation in christ of all things: Christ as the new Adam renews all creation and leads it back to its author through the Incarnation and the Redemption. Mary, the Mother of God, is the new Eve. Visible creation is good, not evil, and the body will rise again. The Eucharist is both a Sacrament containing the real body of Christ and the true sacrifice of the New Law. As a witness to Apostolic tradition and a champion of the inspiration of both the OT and the NT, Irenaeus is one of the most important writers of the early Church.
Potentior Principalitas. One of the most frequently quoted passages of Irenaeus is a statement in Adv. haer. 3.3.3: "Ad hanc enim ecclesiam, propter potentiorem [potioriem] principalitatem, necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam-hoc est eos qui sunt undique fideles-in qua semper ab his qui sunt undique conservata est ea quae est ab apostolis traditio." There is no settled translation of this passage and the difficulties are compounded by the lack of the original Greek text. Some think that the translation should read: "For with this Church on account of its more effective leadership every Church must agree, that is, the faithful throughout the world, in which the apostolic tradition has always been preserved by the [faithful] everywhere."
Some scholars take "this Church" to mean the Church of Rome. Nautin's philological study of the text, however, indicates that this meaning is not certain and suggests that the phrase refers to the universal Church. K. Baus thinks that the church referred to is any Church founded by an apostle in which the Apostolic tradition is preserved by an unbroken succession of bishops teaching the same doctrine.
The meaning of potentior [potior ] principalitas is likewise disputed. Some translate it as "more effective leadership," "superior origin," "priority of time," with reference either to the Church of Rome or to any Apostolic Church. Others, however, maintain that the words do not refer to any Church, but to the unique social and political importance of the city of Rome.
Most probably the words necesse est convenire —"must agree with"—are not to be understood as a juridical obligation, because the context does not deal with the ecclesiastical constitution. Irenaeus rejects the Gnostic teachings because they are completely at variance with the teaching of any Apostolic Church; apostolicity is a proof of orthodoxy of doctrine.
On the basis of studies in early Christian Latin, C. Mohrmann suggests that ab his qui sunt undique contains the idea of a comparison and consequently the translation should read: "in this Church [its identity cannot be established beyond all doubt] the Apostolic tradition has always been preserved and better than in other Churches formed by the faithful living in all parts of the world."
In spite of uncertainties as to the correct translation of the passage, one point seems clear from the context: Irenaeus is primarily concerned with establishing the correct teaching handed down from the Twelve Apostles.
Irenaeus was buried in the crypt of St. John (now St. Irenée) in Lyons, which was destroyed by Calvinists in 1562.
Feast: June 28 (West); Aug. 23 (East).
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